In this post, Dr Nikhil Gokani (School of Law, University of Essex), an expert on regulating food labelling, writes about a major conference he organised with partner institutions.
On September 9 and 10, 2021, the Health and Medical Humanities Hub at the University of Essex, the Law & Non-Communicable Diseases Unit at the University of Liverpool and the Global Center for Legal Innovation on Food Environments of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University jointly held a major online conference on the national, regional, and global regulatory implications of front-of-pack nutrition labelling (FoPNL).
Unhealthy diets are a leading cause of death and a significant factor in the development of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) as they are associated with an increased risk of overweight, obesity, and diet-related NCDs such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancers. To tackle the growing burden of poor nutrition, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that states implement FoPNL as part of a comprehensive approach to healthy diets. FoPNL displays simplified, at-a-glance graphical information on the front of food and beverage packaging. It helps consumers understand the nutritional quality of foods and beverages easily and more quickly, and can lead to healthier purchasing decisions, especially with members of lower socioeconomic groups. Even though the evidence base is still developing on how specific forms of FoPNL can best meet consumer needs, FoPNL is most effective when it is interpretive and makes an evaluative assessment about the nutrition quality of food and beverage products.
Many states have now introduced, or are considering introducing, a variety of voluntary or mandatory FoPNL schemes within their respective jurisdictions. These schemes differ in objectives and, consequentially, in design. In particular, the level of public health protection offered by these different schemes varies, not least as the ease of understanding, and the level of interpretation required by consumers to understand the nutrition composition of the food is different for each scheme. In light of the proliferation of national schemes, discussions are being held at the regional and global levels on the harmonization of FoPNL. At the same time, these developments face strong opposition from powerful food and beverage businesses.
In this context, the conference brought together global actors. It gathered over 250 participants from 39 countries, from Antigua to Vietnam, and provided a discussion forum where academics from various disciplines, international civil society organizations, and government and public health agency representatives discussed a range of overarching issues relevant to the regulation of FoPNL. The conference was organized into six panels.
Panel 1 began the event with a discussion on the importance for states of adopting FoPNL, and in particular interpretive FoPNL. Panellists discussed the rationale for FoPNL and the scientific evidence supporting this intervention, including the role of FoPNL in building healthier food environments and reducing health inequities, as well as the support it has received from the international community. Panellists explored states’ obligation under international human rights law to uphold the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and other related human rights, such as the rights to adequate food, information, and the benefits of scientific progress, through the implementation of FoPNL.
Panel 2 focused on national experiences. In particular, panellists discussed the development, adoption and implementation of legislation mandating warning signs on certain foods and beverages in the Americas – with case studies form Mexico and Uruguay – and government-endorsed schemes in Europe – not least the Nutri-Score which originated in France and UK multiple traffic light labelling. This panel highlighted the importance of gathering evidence and galvanizing public support, in addition to raising key questions concerning the different objectives that different FoPNL schemes pursue, as well as the nutrient profiling models underpinning them.
Panel 3 concluded the first day by looking at how national schemes had been – and could be – contested at the World Trade Organization (WTO) Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Committee and, were a formal legal dispute to arise before the WTO Dispute Settlement Body or an international arbitration tribunal, what arguments could be made and how they could be addressed. Ultimately, all panellists agreed that the question was not so much the lawfulness of FoPNL but its implementation. Under this framework, it is indeed possible for states to adopt effective FoPNL schemes, but they will be more equipped to do so well if they are mindful of their obligations under international trade and investment law and if they anticipate potential legal disputes (even if these disputes never do arise). In fact, linking the discussions of Panels 1 and 3 together, while states have some degree of discretion as to how to regulate FoPNL, it is clear that they have an obligation to do so under international human rights law.
One the second day, after discussing national experiences, the focus moved to regional harmonization and global standards. Panel 4 focused on the experience of the European Union (EU) and the anticipated developments following the European Commission’s repeated announcements that it would publish a proposal for an EU-wide FoPNL scheme in 2022. The discussions highlighted the limits of EU law as it currently stands, preventing Member States from mandating FoPNL at national level. After hearing the plans of the European Commission, panellists analysed the imperative for the EU to adopt a regulatory framework introducing an EU-wide, mandatory, interpretive FoPNL scheme, or, at the very least, a framework that does not prevent Member States from adopting mandatory FoPNL at the national level in the absence of enough political will to act effectively at regional level.
Panel 5 focused on the experience in Latin America and the Caribbean, bearing in mind that an increasing number of countries have already regulated or are in the process of regulating FoPNL, and that regional bodies, such as MERCOSUR and CARICOM, are reflecting on common rules. In the case of South America, panellists stressed that trade-related arguments were often used to halt or delay national FoPNL measures, though MERCOSUR empowers countries to take unilateral measures to protect public health. In the case of the Caribbean, panellists emphasized the flaws in CARICOM’s process, including due process concerns related to the food and beverage industry’s disproportionate influence in policy decisions. They also addressed the use of inaccurate trade-related arguments as a barrier for regional progress on FoPNL. In turn, in North America, panellists echoed the above concerns on the use of trade agreements as barriers to achieving health-related goals, inspiring contradictions in policy decisions as a result of political swings that endanger the sustainability of public health policies.
Finally, panellists expanded the discussions from the regional to the global plane. Panel 6 concluded the proceedings with a discussion on the role that Codex Alimentarius standards could play in promoting or hindering effective FoPNL schemes. In particular, panellists discussed what the international community could do to promote better consumer information through the adoption of common standards on FoPNL, not only at a regional but also at a global level. They also reflected on how to ensure that these standards were an effective tool of public health protection, rather than subservient to the food and beverage industry’s interests, and more specifically how the voice of public health could be better heard in this joint commission of the WHO and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Having discussed the national, regional, and global regulatory implications of FoPNL, with a particular focus on the policy debates in the Americas and Europe, this conference made clear that comparisons between different FoPNL schemes should indeed be drawn with caution, paying particular attention to the objectives each of these schemes set out to achieve. The devil lies in the detail, and the law and public health communities need to tread cautiously if they are to resist the opposition from powerful food and beverage industry actors and ensure that FoPNL schemes effectively serve the interest of consumers and the protection of public health.